A little human anxiety is good for our planet

April 30, 2001|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

ORKNEY SPRINGS, Va. - I am devoutly frugal. I hate wasting anything. I won't haul good wood to the landfill or throw out any food leftovers that haven't spoiled.

When friends of my son, as guests to our dinner table, regularly put on their dishes a lot more food than they eat, or leave the crust of my homemade bread on their plates to be thrown out, I feel offended at some spiritual level that matters to me. I am gratified when I use something completely, like a Bic pen I've emptied of its total supply of ink or the 1972 Datsun wagon I only barely managed to drive to where it was to be junked.

To announce my frugality in the cultural climate of our times is to confess. This tightness smells of anxiety; anxiety is failure in the pursuit of happiness. It dwells in a land which psychoanalysis showed to be neurotic, an uptight answer to the riddle of the sphincter.

I can attest that's probably all true. It does have a connection with anxiety, with fear that there will not be enough for me to get all that I need, or at least want. From that place, there is a tendency to constriction. It would sometimes be nice to have more expansive and relaxed feelings of unlimited abundance.

But I suspect there is a more important truth - more important because what our civilization suffers from is not too much frugality but too little. In the spirit of our times, we have no patience with limits, we are greedy to the point that we do not honor what we consume. And so we are reckless in our consumption. It's sin at a different orifice, a biting of the breast.

Frugality, at its spiritual core, is a way of honoring what we hold to be of value, a way that is based on an understanding that part of what makes something valuable is that it is scarce.

A person who is willing to throw into the garbage half his meal has not appreciated the half he did eat - the substance that sustains his life - as much as one who will frugally save the leftovers.

The person who throws good food away does not honor the precious flows of matter and energy - the soils, the water, the sunlight, the grass, the cows that contributed to nourishing him. And the ungrateful spirit that is willing to waste does not worry about the need to care in return for the Mother Earth that suckles us.

So behold the ungrateful child of modern civilization, and its wanton destruction of the soils, the forests, the waters, that are the bases of our survival. Environmentalism has emerged as a new ethic in our times, but it remains everywhere overpowered by the forces of our greed. Our economics talks more about our "unlimited wants" than about the finiteness of our planet.

But our planet is finite, its basic valuables in scarce supply. Our wasting those scarce resources undermines life's future. Only if we honor that scarcity will we be able to create a civilization that is sustainable, and what teaches us to honor scarcity is the spirit of frugality. So we're called upon to take on that spirit, and to practice its habits as an observance.

True, it does contain the bothersome element of anxiety but we'd be fools if, looking at where we're heading now, we were not anxious.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

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